Six more Western troops die as surge increases casualties

But poll shows rise in Afghans' support for foreign forces and military build-up

Six Western troops, including three Americans, were killed yesterday in Afghanistan, underscoring warnings that casualties will increase as more foreign troops stream into the country and step up efforts against the Taliban.

Despite the rise in violence, support among Afghans for the presence of foreign forces has increased. A new poll found that nearly seven in 10 Afghans support the presence of US forces in their country, and 61 per cent favour the military build-up. However, it said support for US and Nato forces drops sharply in the south and east where the fighting is the most intense.

The Americans died in a firefight with militants during a patrol in southern Afghanistan. The deaths raised to 10 the number of US service members killed in Afghanistan this year.

Also yesterday, a French officer was killed during a joint patrol with Afghan troops in Alasay, a valley largely under insurgent control that Nato is trying to reclaim. Another French service member was seriously wounded in the attack some 50 miles northeast of Kabul. Nato said another service member was killed in the clash but did not release the nationality and a sixth service member was killed by a roadside bomb in the south, making yesterday the deadliest day for the Nato-led international force in two months.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country has lost 37 troops in Afghanistan since 2001, condemned what he called "blind violence" and expressed his determination to keep forces in the country.

The southern half of the country, the Taliban heartland, has frequently been hit by attacks as the US military builds up its presence there. Most of the 30,000 additional American troops that President Barack Obama has ordered to Afghanistan will be deployed there.

The top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, said he believes the troop surge in Afghanistan is turning the tide against the Taliban. He cited as evidence of progress a meeting he recently held in a river valley in Helmand province, one of the first targets of the surge.

"When I sit in an area that the Taliban controlled only seven months ago and now you meet with elders and they describe with considerable optimism the future, you sense the tide is turning," he told ABC television.

The poll of a national random sample of 1,534 Afghan adults was conducted from 11-23 December by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV. It found support for US forces had risen to 68 per cent from 63 per cent in 2009. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

On Sunday, a British correspondent and a US Marine were killed by a roadside bomb in that region. The Sunday Mirror journalist Rupert Hamer, 39, was the first British journalist killed in the conflict. Hamer and photographer Philip Coburn, 43, were accompanying a US Marine patrol on Saturday when their vehicle was hit by a makeshift bomb, Mr Coburn was seriously wounded.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed condolences to Hamer's family. Mr Karzai said he appreciated the "brave journalists" who risk their lives in Helmand.

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